Ash Wednesday falls each year on the day after Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday.
The liturgical season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Lent, the 40-day period preceding Easter, is a time of reflection, fasting, prayer and almsgiving for many Christians.
On Ash Wednesday, ashes are distributed on the foreheads of people of all ages at special Masses and services held in Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Anglican and some Baptist churches.
In Catholic churches, the ashes are made from burning the blessed palms used on Palm Sunday the previous year.
For nearly a year, the palms hang in our homes and bedrooms, some folded into crosses and others as long slender leaves to remind us of Jesus.
The ashes are to remind us to turn away from sin. In my youth, the priest prayed, "Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return" as he marked us with the sign of the cross.
As a cradle Catholic, I grew up with the same plan for Lent that many other Catholic kids had: to give up candy for 40 days.
Giving up is what Lent was all about back in the '60s and early '70s and there weren't a lot of things that most of us kids had that we could give up.
Giving up candy for 40 days may not sound like much, but to kids who loved candy, it was harder than you probably realize.
In addition to giving up candy, we also abstained from meat on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays, but back then, abstaining from meat was done on Fridays all year long, not just during Lent.
We always had to give a portion of our allowances to the poor via the church's collection baskets. Our allowances were pretty small, but we shared, perhaps not as joyfully as we should have.
Fridays were also Stations of the Cross day. For those not raised Catholic, the Stations of the Cross are a way of following Jesus' footsteps from the time he was condemned to death until he was laid in the tomb.
At Catholic school, we attended Stations of the Cross together, praying at each station as we reflected on the meaning of Jesus' suffering and death.
Fast forward more than a few years. The Catholic Church has come a long way, realizing along the way that Lent isn't just about 'giving up,' nor just about preparing yourself for Easter.
We still abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays during Lent. The Stations of the Cross are still part of Lent at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Lynchburg and other Catholic churches around the world.
We still repent our sins and attend community penance services during Lent. But Lent is about more than each individual.
There's a big focus on doing good during Lent. Almsgiving to the poor and other ways of giving back to others, especially those less fortunate, is a part of what Catholics do during Lent.
Finally, Lent is about prayer and reflection on the word of God. In some churches, Bible studies are part of Lent. And, of course, some of us still give up candy. Old habits are hard to break.